KCET‘s Socal Connected’s feature on the state of the Cal-OSHA enforcement, and particularly the Appeals Board process, is a MUST see.   “Protected or Neglected”  is based on a 9-month investigation by the southern California not-for-profit public television station.  Sadly, what we’ve read and learned previously about the deficiencies in other OSHA State Plan states appears to prevail in California as well.  The presentation begins:

“Every day in California, at least one person dies on the job…These are some of those workers’ faces… They were educators and engineers… construction workers and contractors. They wore white and blue collars…And every year, tens of thousands more are injured…”

The investigative reporters identified example after troubling example of fatality investigations identifying serious violations of safety regulations, but employers not held to account with monetary penalties and citations.  For example:

“Ted Garcia was only on the job just two months at an asphalt company when chemicals ignited – burning his face and neck. He also suffered brain damage. His employer had a citation dropped from $65,000 to little more than $3,000.”

And,

“After thirty years on the job, electrician David Moser was just months from retirement and had recently earned a safety award at work. He was fatally electrocuted while installing light fixtures. His employer had a $16,000 fine knocked down to $335.”

A provision for ‘mandatory minimum’ penalties was supposed to ensure that monetary fines had a deterrent effect, but the reporters expose how Cal-OSHA’s Appeals Board creatively interprets the provision and considers it optional.  The presentation features former board member Marcy Saunders, who shares her disgust at the Board’s operations and decisions.  This includes its practices of overbooking cases so that Cal-OSHA staff are forced to settle them, something that TPH reported about here last June. 

Midway through the presentation (16:00) the reporters expose practices by Dole Foods’ Lettuce Division to maintain low “reported” injury rates.  Not only do they provide evidence of the company’s failure to accurately report worker injuries, but worse yet, denying medical treatment to injured workers and telling them to get treated in Mexico!  

Cal-OSHA chief Len Welsh  explains his agency’s efforts to investigate the allegations (contained in a June 2006 attorney-confidential memo to Dole (available on-line), including sending one of their best inspectors.  He says they “came up empty handed.”   Mr. Welsh suggested the passage of time and an inability to confirm  independently the workers’ allegations impeded their investigation.  If I understood correctly Mr. Welsh’s assessment, his staff was prohibited (under advice from Cal-OSHA’s legal counsel) from contacting and interviewing the workers named in the memo to Dole because the document is protected by the attorney-client privilege.  They would have had to assemble independently from other sources the workers’ allegations.  

Not true, according to the former chief counsel for the California Labor Commission, Miles Locker:

“The conduct [by Dole] you are talking about here is so unlawful, so beyond anything that is acceptable,that this should be something that ought to be a top priority of an administration interested in enforcing occupational safety and health laws.  It is inconceivable to me that an administration can be aware of that and do nothing about it.”

That’s the rub we often encounter, isn’t it?  Our worker health and safety agencies—whether Cal-OSHA, federal OSHA or the other State Plans—are only as effective as the legal acumen offered by their in-house counsel.  [FYI: Mr. Miles Locker was suspended and later dismissed from his job for his pro-worker perspective.]

The SoCal Connected feature ends with a controversy: is Dole Food’s Soledad, CA facility, or another other Dole Food workplace, designated as VPP site?   Here’s a news release from August 2006 annoucing their Star designation, but there are currently no “Dole” identified sites listed on OSHA’s online catalogue of sites.   In 2008, the Soledad plant was subject to at least three Cal-OSHA inspections because of complaints about unsafe conditions, (here, here, here).  Does someone know whether the Dole plant withdrew by their own accord or if they were asked to withdraw?

Find 28 minutes to watch the Socal Connected presentation “Protected or Neglected: Workplace Safety” and then post a comment on the station’s website.  We want the station managers to know that we appreciated this type of programming and would like to see more of it.  

I also want to give credit to the sponsors of SoCal Connected who make this investigative reporting possible:

The Ahmanson Foundation, Jim & Anne Rothenberg, Linda and Abbott Brown, Elizabeth Hofert-Dailey Trust, John Randolph and Dora Haynes Foundation, US Bank and UCLA.